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Vayeshev: Joseph – From the Depths of Despair to the Heights of Fulfilled Dreams

VAYESHEV (And He Lived)

Genesis 37:1–40:23; Amos 2:6–3:8; Romans 8:18–39

“Jacob lived [yeshev] in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan.”  (Genesis 37:1)

In last week’s Torah study, Vayishlach, Jacob returned from Haran with his entire household to settle in the Land of Canaan.  After all the twists and turns of Jacob’s life, he longed to settle down in the land God had promised.

The opening Hebrew Scripture of this Parasha uses the word yeshev, which means to settle.  In Israel, a settlement is called a yishuv, and those who settle in Israel, especially within the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria, do so at great risk from Palestinian terrorists who often live nearby.

In this Parasha, we learn about the trials of Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, whom God had given the gift of dreams and their interpretation.  Many of those dreams revealed Joseph’s future exalted position.

By relating these dreams to his brothers, however, Joseph fueled their jealousy, which had already been aroused by their father’s favoritism toward Joseph, son of his favored wife, Rachel.


Joseph’s Sheaves (1919 Bible Primer)

The Folly of Favoritism

“Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a varicolored tunic.”  (Genesis 37:3)

Jacob made no secret of the fact that he loved Joseph more than any of his other children, and he gave him a special coat of many colors.

By giving him this coat, Jacob was proclaiming Joseph’s sovereignty and leadership over all his other sons, since in the patriarchal age, Semitic chiefs wore coats of many colors as an insignia of rulership.

Perhaps Jacob should have foreseen the negative effects of sibling rivalry that usually result from such favoritism, since he was also a victim of such dysfunction.

His mother, Rebecca, favored Jacob but his father, Isaac, favored Jacob’s brother Esau.  This caused a great deal of animosity between the two brothers.  Rather than learn from his parents’ mistakes, however, Jacob simply perpetuated their parental weaknesses.

Instead of following Jacob’s example, we can make a choice to learn from our parents’ mistakes and decide today not to carry on with unhealthy parent-child relationships that have been modeled for us by previous generations.

Of course, to make such a change requires us to be set free from the past, and that begins with repentance and forgiveness — repentance for judging our parents (and perhaps for being a troublesome child), and forgiving them for their mistakes.

Everlasting spiritual new beginnings are found in the freedom that Messiah Yeshua (Jesus) offers when we repent of our sins and receive His forgiveness.

Siblings play beach Israeli

Israeli siblings play together on a beach in Israel.

Favor Follows Joseph into the Pit

The name Yosef (Joseph) is associated with the modern kabbalistic (Jewish mysticism) term yesod, meaning foundation, from the expression, “Tzadik yesod olam” — a righteous man is the foundation of the world.

Indeed, Joseph had a great destiny upon his life, the twists and turns of which would provide a foundation for the survival of his family; and in the fullness of time, a freedom that provides a foundation for Jewish life and salvation.

Jacob’s favored son is so important that he is allotted more text in the Tanakh (Old Testament) than any other character except Moses.

But he was not immediately ready to fulfill his divine purpose.  Either Joseph needed to learn humility, which he gained through painful and difficult trials, or through his trials, God positioned him to fulfill that destiny.  Perhaps both.

The drama began when Jacob dispatched Joseph on a mission to check on his brothers.  Unbeknownst to both of them, the jealous siblings had already plotted to kill Joseph.

Their plan might have succeeded except for the protests of Reuven, who urged them to throw Joseph into a pit instead (secretly intending to rescue him later). But Reuven never had the opportunity to save his brother, since the other brothers sold Joseph, at Judah’s suggestion, to an Ishmaelite caravan.

“They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites.”  (Genesis 37:28)


This Butterfield mosaic of Joseph being sold is displayed in the Keble College.  (Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew O.P.)

Once in Egypt, Joseph was sold to Potiphar, an Egyptian captain of Pharaoh’s guard, who soon discovered the greatness within Joseph.  Potiphar came to  trust Joseph so implicitly that he placed him in charge of all of his affairs.

Meanwhile, Joseph’s brothers returned to their father with his coat of many colors.  They dipped it in blood in order to deceive their father into thinking that a wild animal had killed his beloved son.

There is a curious interruption in the narrative of Joseph’s story here, as the Scriptures turn to the episode of Judah.  Judah, fourth son of Jacob and future ruler of the twelve tribes of Israel, led the decision to sell Joseph rather than kill him.

“Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood?  Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves.  After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.”   (Genesis 37:26–27)

Judah seems to be a complex character, with signs of integrity as well as duplicity.


Jacob Receiving the Bloody Tunic of Joseph, by Jan Lievens

Keeping Hope Alive through Inheritance

At this time, Judah had married the daughter of a Canaanite, Shua:

“There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her and cohabited with her.”  (Genesis 38:2)

Shua conceived and had a son named Er, who married Tamar.  But Er died without giving Tamar a child because the Lord was displeased with this son of Judah and prematurely took his life.

Judah then urged his second-born son, Onan, to take Tamar as a wife.  It was the duty of the brother of a man who died without children to marry his widow in order to perpetuate his brother’s line.

“Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Join with your brother’s wife and do your duty by her as a brother-in-law, and provide offspring for your brother.’”  (Genesis 38:8)

This kind of familial responsibility may seem alien to us, but God later included it in the laws found in the Book of Deuteronomy:

“When brothers live together, and one of them dies childless, the wife of the deceased man shall not marry outside to a strange man; her brother-in-law shall come to her, and take her to himself as a wife, and perform levirate marriage.

“The firstborn son whom she bears will then perpetuate the name of the dead brother, so that his name will not be obliterated from Israel.”  (Deuteronomy 25:5–6)

Torah-Scripture-Five Books of Moses

Reading from the Torah scroll

Why would God maintain a custom that predates even Abraham?

One reason is grounded in eternal inheritance.  The other is “for the express purpose of keeping alive the hope of resurrection in the minds of the chosen people.”  (Elliott’s Commentary for English Readers, Deuteronomy 25:5)

This law of levirate marriage kept alive the hope of an earthly resurrection of the family name by keeping the inheritance within the family.  

We see this in the Book of Ruth: the wealthy Bethlehem landowner Boaz (who foreshadowed Yeshua) gave this hope of resurrection and eternal inheritance to the widow Ruth (who foreshadowed those who follow Yeshua) when he became her bridegroom and she his bride.  (Ruth 4)

The hope of our spiritual, eternal resurrection and inheritance was fulfilled when Yeshua became the “Bridegroom” of all chosen people — Gentiles and Jews — creating a marriage covenant with all those who enter into that covenant with Him.  Those who become His Bride receive His eternal inheritance.

All Believers who put their hope in Yeshua as Savior have the hope of the resurrection sealed into their spirit.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Yeshua HaMashiach!  According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Yeshua HaMashiach from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”  (1 Peter 1:3–4)


The Marriage of Ruth and Boaz, by Jean-Baptiste Auguste Leloir (Museum Georges Garret)

Obedience Is Rewarded

Still, we can well imagine that sin might get in the way of this hope, and it did in the case of Judah’s second son, Onan.  In fact, the Lord was displeased with him, too, because he refused to raise up a son for his brother.  In judgment, the Lord took his life also.

Instead of admitting that his sons died early because of their sin, Judah blamed the widow, Tamar.  And though he promised her that his third and last son, Shelah, would give her a son, he did not want to risk losing him as well.

He told Tamar to wait as a widow until Shelah grew to maturity.  But when Shelah became a man, Judah still did not give him to Tamar as her husband, so she took matters into her own hands.

Tamar disguised herself as a cult prostitute and lured Judah into an encounter that resulted in her becoming pregnant.  Approximately three months later, when her pregnancy became evident, Judah ordered her executed for harlotry; but it was then that Tamar displayed Judah’s seal, cord, and staff, which Judah had given Tamar as pledge of payment for her services.

“As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, ‘I am with child by the man to whom these belong.’  And she added, ‘Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?’”  (Genesis 38:25)


Judah and Tamar, by Rembrandt

Judah then realized that though Tamar’s actions were less than perfect, she had acted to fulfill the familial responsibility to raise up a child for her husband under the family name.  He realized that she was more righteous than he was, so he set her free.

Tamar gave birth to twins, one of whom, Perez, became a forefather of Boaz, who became the great-grandfather of King David, who became a forefather of the Messiah.  (see Matthew 1; Ruth 4:18–22)

Judah is considered, in traditional Judaism and in the Tanakh, the father of the Mashiach (Messiah), who we know to be Yeshua (Salvation), the Lion from the tribe of Judah.

“The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants, until the coming of the one to whom it belongs, the one whom all nations will honor.”  (Genesis 49:10)

choir pit-Versailles-Synagogue-Lion of Judah-menorah-hanukkiah

Versailles Synagogue (Photo by Djampa)

From Pit to Palace

What does this story show us?  It shows us that God, by His mercies, can redeem us and take us from the depths of despair to the heights of fulfilled dreams.  

Although Judah made some very bad decisions that tremendously hurt people, and although he fell into immorality, God still chose to bring forth the Messiah of all mankind through his lineage.

Similarly, Joseph’s dark descent into a pit, his betrayal by his brothers, his period of slavery in Egypt, and abandonment in a dungeon for a crime he did not commit served to position him to be exalted over all of Egypt, next to Pharaoh.

In this exalted position Joseph was able to arrange for all of Egypt to have enough food to eat during the seven-year famine throughout the region.  The people living around Egypt, including his own brothers who came to Joseph seeking food, survived the famine because of Joseph’s wise leadership. 

Jerusalem-prayer-men's section-Kotel-Wailing Wall

Jewish men pray at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.

We also may have to endure challenging situations in life as we journey toward fulfilling our calling in God.

When times are the darkest—when we have fallen into a pit, either by those who sin against us, or by our own sin—we can take heart because this is not the end of the story.  God promises to make all things work together for our good.  (Romans 8:28)

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”  (Romans 8:28)

It is during life’s dark times that the light of Yeshua seems brightest.

Yeshua said, “I am the Light of the world.”  His light of truth and eternal love can sustain us through the darkest of nights as we continue to place our faith and trust in Him.

“Then Yeshua spoke to them again: ‘I am the light of the world.  Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.'”  (John 8:12)

Today is a dark time in the lives of the people of Israel as we are being attacked on streets, in stores and synagogues, and on social media by Palestinian terrorists; but in the center of this darkness, Yeshua can shine His light through us. 

“For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”  (Luke 2:30–32)

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.”  (Isaiah 60:1)

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